In short, Vietnam is a sensory overload. From dodging speeding scooters and honking cars in Hanoi to hiking through the magnificent rice paddies in Sapa Valley. It is a country which is easy to appreciate and a history lesson within itself.
If you’re travelling to Vietnam in the hope of experiencing something similar to tropical Thailand… rethink your travel plans. Although right next door to each other, the countries seem worlds apart. Of course you can take a trip to Halong Bay and view the magnificent Limestone Pillars that peak out of the emerald waters, similar to those on James Bond Island, but there is so much more to Vietnam than just island living.
Vietnam has a lot to offer visitors and the dark history of war, colonialism and communism is evident in many parts of the country –even on some of the locals’ expressions. You might depart from Vietnam feeling slightly melancholic but altogether enlightened and well travelled. It is a continuously developing country and the progress is evident in the metropolises such as Ho Chi Minh City.
“I find myself returning to Vietnam for the same reasons: to feast on the best seafood in the world, ride a lonely mountain pass I’ve not yet experienced, and search for that perfect cove beach I’ve not yet found.” – Iain Stewart
When in Vietnam…
- You’ll pay for luxury accommodation as a tourist. Hostels or backpackers are more common within the city parts of the country, and they start at around VND 150 000 (R90) a night, if you’re looking at more of a budget trip. Most hotels offer a complimentary, traditional Vietnamese breakfast, if this isn’t your choice rather venture out to the streets.
- Many activities in Vietnam are affordable because they are based on seeing the natural beauty of the country – which you can do at your own leisure. If you’re going to buy in to an organised tour you should expect to pay up to R1000 per person depending on where and what. Bargain with the tour guides because tourists tend to be charged a lot more – like any country you visit!
- Don’t forget your visa. Travelling to Vietnam from South Africa does require one. You could organise this on arrival but sending your passport to the Embassy information is not much of a hassle and only takes around 5 days. It also makes your arrival experience a lot less stressful due to the language barrier at the airport.
- Although a third world country, Vietnam is pretty clued up when it comes to internet connection. Almost every restaurant, hotel, airport and convenience store gives you access to free Wi-Fi so it’s not really necessary to buy a SIM card. Unless you’re travelling via train or are in remote areas without internet access.
Ol’ Charming Hanoi
Flooded with scooters, buses and tourists, Vietnam’s capital is fast paced and full of history. It’s also one of the most run down cities. To really experience this city’s culture, the ‘Old Quarter’ is where you want to be. Combining French Colonialism with Eastern influences, the Old Quarter is made up of antique buildings and many narrow streets, full of merchants who sell their products from the early hours of the morning until late at night.
Wake up early, start walking the streets around sunrise and watch the city come to life. Children buying loaves of bread on their way to school, older folk eating breakfast noodles on the pavement and the soft hum of prayer emerging from the temples. You’re guaranteed to feel like a local living in Hanoi 100 years ago.
Venture out of the Old Quarter and a modern city is unveiled, intertwined with ancient colonial homes, and overflowing with war museums and literature temples. Hanoi is also pretty near to the Chinese border, so don’t be surprised when you stumble across less popular cuisines…
When in Hanoi…
- If you’re travelling to the Old Quarter from the airport, there are bus trips that leave every hour for just VND 40 000 per person (about R25).
- If you’re staying in the Old Quarter you won’t need a taxi to get around. Explore by foot or hire a scooter (ask the hotel desk for assistance). If you’re going out of the Old Quarter, metered taxis are surprisingly affordable when splitting the fair and they are quite safe. A 30-minute trip will cost around VND 120 000 (R70).
- Eat the street food, it’s tasty and cheap. Pho is a popular Vietnamese dish and not hard to come by on the streets. You can also buy warm meat sandwiches (Banh Mi). Of course you have a lot more options than this, just make sure you know exactly what you’re ingesting. If you’re eating at a Western restaurant, be prepared to pay a bit more than average.
“Astonishingly exotic and utterly compelling, Vietnam is a country of breathtaking natural beauty with a unique heritage, where travel quickly becomes addictive.” – Lonely Planet
First things first – make sure you stay in Sapa for at least two days. As Vietnam’s premier trekking base, there is just too much to see and too many directions to walk in one day . The travel there can be quite tiring if by overnight train from Hanoi.
Surrounded by cascading rice terraces and and small hill-tribe villages, the views in Sapa are nothing short of amazing. Your options to explore the different villages are endless but try not to book a tour before you get to the valley, tour agents often over charge and only pay the guide a small portion of the profit. Rather wait until you arrive and hire a local tour guide in person, they will also know the best spots to take you! Alternatively you can hire a scooter for about VND 300 000 per day (roughly R200) and drive through the mountains to many different villages.
You’ll meet many people along your treks or tours, either from the Black Hmong or Red Dao Tribes. Many prefer not to have their picture taken, so out of respect always ask first to avoid offending them, and if they are allowing you in to their homes, it’s thoughtful to give them something in return.
Getting to Sapa
- Take an overnight train to Lao Cai, a small town that sits just outside of Sapa. The overnight sleeper train is by far the most convenient way to get there. The trip to Lao Cai is an overnight journey that leaves Hanoi at night and gets you into Lao Cai by 6am in the morning – perfect to watch the sunrise through the terraces as you make your way from Lao Cai to Sapa.
- Take a minivan or bus from Lao Cai station to Sapa Valley. No need to book this in advance, they are all lined up as you get off the platform. Just make sure you agree on a price upfront before you leave to avoid being scammed. It shouldn’t cost you more than VND 40 000 one way.
Photographs by Jessie Bell
Getting to Vietnam
Return flights from Cape Town start at R9000 via Emirates airline. Domestic flights in Vietnam can range between R450 to R1000 per person depending on airlines. Overnight trains from Hanoi to Lao Cai (Sapa) start at R400 per person.
Staying in Vietnam?
Research accommodation well and use Trip Advisor to review your hotel choices before making a final decision. DECO has tried and recommends the Golden Lotus Luxury Hotel in Hanoi, Mia Resort in Nha Trang and U Sapa Hotel in Sapa.
Booked your Trip?
Great, now it’s time to purchase travel insurance. Find out what you need to know here.
All photographs captured by Jessie Bell and Naasier Adams
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